How the Facebook Party Got Trashed and What We Can Do About It

Facebook used to be fun.  Back in the old days, I could find out what a friend in the Midwest was up to, see pictures my high school friends had taken of their kids, hear about a new book or class, and stay connected with colleagues and acquaintances who otherwise would have faded from my mind because of time and distance.  That was then.

The fun factor for Facebook has greatly diminished in recent months.  A few minutes on Facebook used to be like collecting seashells early in the morning when the beach is open and shells are plentiful and all you have to do is choose which ones to pick up.  The posts were friendly and everything was nice.  Now it’s more like walking along a beach polluted with piles of garbage, toxic waste residue and angry seagulls fighting over the carcasses of dead fish.  You will still find some shells, but is it worth it?

What is it that’s caused this change?  There was always a minority of users who littered social media with their trash talk, but now that minority has grown into a majority.  Somewhere along the way, we all started using Facebook to proclaim our own little version of the truth; the gospel the way we see it (and everyone else should see it).  Facebook became our tiny digital pulpit from where we could preach to the choir (who amen with their thumbs-up likes) and try to convert the damned (or at least piss them off).  I think four things have contributed to this sad turn of events.

First, our society has gradually replaced conversation with argument.  The Jerry Springer show used to be an entertaining way to watch people with zero social skills interact.  In case you’re too young to remember, they interacted by arguing and eventually punching and slapping.  Now everyone argues. Watch any “news” channel and the interviews are more like interruption contests.  Even ESPN is filled with shows where the main premise is to argue.  So Facebook is just reflecting this new (worse) reality.

Second, we each imagine our opinion matters more than it does.  It’s like each of us thinks we are Bill Maher with his collection of friends, foils, and flatterers gathered around to hear him spout his take on things.   They are in the ring and he is the ringleader.  It’s his show, so his opinion is the right one and the point of the show is to demean and poke fun at anyone who has a different point of view.  Anyone who disagrees with Maher is not just different, they are wrong and deserve the trash he throws in their face.  Like Maher (or any of the many others like him), we think that if we have a snarky or ironic twist on things that everyone will smile with us or at least be silenced.  But they won’t.  We think way too highly of our opinion.   

Third, I suspect the recent election had a lot to do with raising the number of negative posts to a degree that a certain tipping point was reached.  Users who just wanted to share life are now staying silent (or just staying away), and this means those negative voices are louder, more prominent and even more likely to keep ordinary life from being shared. Like a neighborhood where a few drug dealers move in, everybody else is moving out (or becoming a dealer). 

Finally, technology brings people together, but not just in the good ways.  We are a deeply divided world and we always have been, but now everyone is around one big Thanksgiving table and someone just brought up politics or religion or both.  As my friend Luchiano up in Toronto recently texted, I wonder, “Anyone besides me exhausted with the divisiveness and growing hate in the world?” We’re all exhausted because Facebook is an uncivil Thanksgiving dinner that we cannot escape. 

So what’s the solution?  There’s no easy solution, but here are some suggestions.

Hold your tongue.  As the book of James reminds us, words can do much harm.  You don’t have to say everything you think, you don’t have to share every opinion you hold, you don’t have to respond to every post that pushes your button.  A certain sign of being a grown up is the ability to stay silent when necessary (and knowing when it’s necessary).  For most of us, it’s more necessary than we realize. 

Show some empathy.  People see things differently than you see them because they are standing in a different place and have a different story. That Trump voter is not a stupid redneck who hates the poor and all things civil, she is a person who is a mixed bag of right and wrong, just like you.  And that safety-pin social justice protester is not all heart and no brains, he is a real person who is a mixed bag of right and wrong, just like you.  Empathy does not mean you have to change your mind; it just means you change your attitude.  As Jesus said, it’s not really that big of a deal to love your friends who are like you; the better way is to extend love, compassion and empathy to those who are not like you.

Humble yourself.  Social and moral psychologists tell us that we don’t really look at facts and then form our opinions based on what we see; instead, we form opinions based on deep values and emotions and then we look for facts to support what we’ve already concluded.  Anything that fits our opinion proves our point, and everything else we dismiss as a lie.  Search your heart deeply enough and you will see that this is true of you, too.  A dose of humility frees us from always needing to be right or prove we are right and allows us to engage the rest of the world with curiosity instead of crankiness.